4 Reasons You Should Try Intensive Gardening

4 Reasons You Should Try Intensive Gardening

Maybe you've heard of it, maybe you haven't, but intensive Gardening is a GREAT system for designing and laying out your garden space. 

Intensive gardening is generally associated with gardening in smaller spaces and raised beds due to its ability to maximize space AND productivity; but I have successfully used this method of planting for years in both large and small garden spaces.

My reasons for intensive gardening are both personal and plant-related, and I will share them below, but let's first DEFINE THE TERMS..

What is Intensive Gardening?

The simplest way to define Intensive Gardening (or "IG" for short) is growing crops as closely together as possible to maximize the use of space.

I find it helpful to do a comparison to get a clearer picture. 

Often when you think of farming, or vegetable gardening in general, you picture nice and neat rows of crops sprawled out across a lovely pasture. Each plant and plant row is spaced according to the seed packet's recommendations and you can easily access every plant in the plot. 

Does this look about right? 👇🏻

Well, crop gardening definitely has its place, especially if you're growing crops at a HUGE scale. But with IG you can pretty much ignore the spacing recommendations on your seed packets (yay!) and have some fun! 

Ok, don't throw away your seed packet just yet. They actually will come in handy when determining how to layout your IG beds, especially if you are not familiar with the growth habits of certain plants.

As mentioned above, with IG your plants will be spaced more closely then what's recommended on your packet AND you will have a variety of plants growing together (intercropping) at various times through the season, or the year (succession planting).

The intensive gardening ideal is to have something growing in every part of the garden at all times during the growing season. And this will require some planning on your part.

There are also some "rules", or better said, "suggestions" you will want to follow when you IG, and I'll get to all these in a minute, but for the most part... THE GARDEN BECOMES YOUR CANVAS! 🎨

With intensive gardening, your beds will look a bit more like this... 👇🏻

Isn't that just lovely???

I just love intensive gardening because there are so many different ways you can layout and organize your plants! I don't think I've ever done the same design twice, although there are some combinations of plants that I have found to be quite perfect.

But before I share all the different WAYS you can IG, let's get to the heart of the matter here.... WHY you'd want to IG in the first place! Oh, and don't forget to grab your FREE Guide while you're here! 👇🏻

4 Reasons for Intensive Gardening

1. Limited space.

One of the biggest reasons people use IG is limited space. You can pack a lot of plants into a small space when you use the various IG methods we'll discuss shortly.

This type of gardening is often used in raised bed and square foot gardens due to its practicality, efficiency and the ease of packing a lot of plants in a small, pre-defined space. 

Due close spacing, plants will compete for available water and for nutrients, requiring you to make sure the soil is properly amended and prepared ahead of time. This is more easily done in a raised bed situation.

Additionally, as plants grow, you will need to prune and harvest them more regularly to keep overcrowding at bay. But if you're growing in a smaller space, this may only take 10-15 minutes at most to maintain.

THE BEST PART about IG is that all these plants planted so closely together act as a living mulch, reducing the weed burden and improving moisture retention!

Because when space is at a premium (and even when it's not) nobody has room (or time) for weeds! Once your plants really start growing, you'll be amazed at how this spacing keeps the weeds at bay.

2. Maximize productivity.

As odd as it may sound, you can really maximize the productivity of your plants when you use IG methods. Although it may require you to plan ahead and be a bit more hands on to get such a robust harvest.  

The key to maximizing productivity in an IG garden is twofold: 

#1 Staying on top of your pruning and harvesting; and 

#2 Choosing plants that will give you the biggest bang for your buck. In other words, pick "high-yielding" plants.

As mentioned above, because you are reducing the space in which your plants will grow, you will need to keep a close eye on them as they mature. 

Harvesting the outside leaves of your leafy greens and roots plants (carrots, radishes, turnips, & beets) will not only keep their size manageable, it will encourage their growth and keep them healthy.

Pruning off yellowing or dead leaves will help with overcrowding and plant disease, as well as pest control. Pests tend to go for the weaker, dying plants.

If you grow one-harvest plants like radishes, carrots, onions, and beets, you can succession plant these with more of the same or different crops as you harvest them. This, of course, requires you to not only stay on top of your harvesting but on top of your planning and planting as well.

Planting "high-yielding" plants such as lettuces, kale, chard, tomatoes, peppers, onions, eggplant, bush peas and beans, cucumbers and summer squash will give you a lot of "fruit" per plant or will take up minimal space for a big harvest (think carrots and bunching onions).

Since your growing space is at premium, you will want to make the most of it! Which means you will want to consider growing vertically with vining plants like pole beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and even summer squash (but more on that in a minute).

3. Improve Biodiversity.

"Biodiversity" simply means the variety of life found in a habitat or ecosystem. In this case, your garden can be the habitat of a whole host of creatures!

By planting a variety of plants (versus just one variety per row or bed), you will attract a variety of creatures to your garden (think bees & bugs), as well as a variety of microorganisms to your soil; and each of these creatures will provide different benefits and "services" to you garden ecosystem. 

Now, you may be thinking that this "variety" will also attract a variety of pests, and this is true. BUT, for every pest, there is a prey, and if you learn the plants that attract "beneficial" bugs to your garden, they will help kill off a lot of these pests.

There are also a plethora of plants that ward off or confuse pests by their robust perfumes. Think aromatic herbs like dill, rosemary, oregano, and mint. Planting these near your brassicas and greens will help deter caterpillars and other pests because they won't be able to detect the scent of the plant they want to eat.

Improving the biodiversity of your garden is a great all around way to help nature in general. You will be attracting pollinators, likes bees and butterflies, whose numbers are sadly diminishing due to large-scale farming and pesticide practices. 

Invite them to your organic garden and you will be doing more than you know for the overall health of your family and food production in general.

And this leads to my last point...

4. Add Beauty & Color

This is probably my favorite reason for Intensive Gardening - beauty! 

I just think IG is lovely with all the various plants growing near one another. The variety of colors and textures provide such a beautiful backdrop and it's so fun to go out an explore the garden!

And keep in mind, your garden doesn't just have to be home to vegetables and fruit! By adding flowers, especially edible flowers, you can bring an endless palette of color and vibrancy to your garden!

My favorite flowers to plant in my vegetable gardens are nasturtiums, marigolds, pansies, petunias, chamomile, miniature daisies and zinnias, and so much more!

If you don't want to give up your garden space to flowers, plant them around the base or perimeter of your garden. You will still get to enjoy their lovely colors, perfumes and the pollinators they bring, but they won't take away from your space.

Methods of Intensive Gardening

Yes, there are different ways, or methods to practice intensive gardening. You can use one or all of them in your IG bed and will find your favorite methods over time. I actually use all of these methods in my garden as they each provide a different benefit.

Succession planting. Succession planting is planting in the same area as previously harvested plants in order to extend the garden season and keep the garden in production. There a many different ways to do this, but the simplest is with one-harvest, quick-growing plants.

For example, planting radish seeds every two weeks (or so) will keep a steady supply growing in your garden. Since these plants can be ready to eat within 25-40 days, you can easily maximize your growing space by staggering when you plant them and where. 

Pull out a fully-mature radish, plant a seed (or a different plant) in its place, and you'll have an almost-ready one growing next to it. 

Additionally, if it's getting to the end of cool season when radishes (or any other cool season crop) prefer to grow, you can succession plant these crops with warmer season plants. Once the radishes are all harvested, these warmer season plants will have plenty of room to mature.

This works well at the end of the warm/hot season as well, as you prepare for your fall garden.

Intercropping. Intercropping, or interplanting, is planting fast and slow growing crops in the same row at the same time. Additionally, you can plant different crops in adjoining areas to take advantage of differences in growing habits, light requirements or nutrient needs.

To do this well, you will need to consider a few things about each plant: the maturity dates or length of growing season, how big or small it will be at maturity, how it grows (above or below ground, tall or short, vining or bush habit), and its affects on other plants.

So, for example, grow shorter, shade-loving plants like lettuces, cilantro and spinach near taller, vining plants. The vining plants will cast a shadow on the shorter plants and may extend their season.

Grow root crops, like radishes or carrots, near shallow-root crops like lettuce. The root crops will not be in competition for space below the ground and the shallow-rooted crops will have plenty of room to grow above the ground, especially if you're harvesting the greens of the root crops as they grow.

Other examples include:

  • Growing long-season (slow-maturing) and short-season (quick-maturing) plants like carrots and radishes together. The radishes will be harvested before they begin to crowd the carrots. 
  • Combining different growth patterns by planting smaller plants close to larger plants, for example planting onions or garlic at the base of tomatoes or cabbages. 
  • Planting heavy feeders, such as brassicas, with with light feeders, such as root and leaf crops and soil-building crops (legumes) in order to take advantage of available nutrients.

Vertical planting. Growing vertically, or growing crops on trellises or other supports, is a great way to use your space efficiently. Clearly, instead of sprawling or vining plants taking up your ground space, they will grow upwards. Just be careful to place them where they won't shade your other plants, unless you do this intentionally to extend the growth of cooler season plants.

Other Things to Consider with IG

Plant "cut-and-come-again" plants like lettuces and leafy greens whose outer leaves you can harvest as the plant grows. Harvesting the outer leaves not only keeps the plant's size manageable, but encourages the plant to keep growing and keeps it healthy.  These plants include lettuces, kales, chards, collards, and other leafy greens.

Plant multiple plants in a "row". Instead of having a single row of a crop with wasted space in between, use the "in-between" spaces for other plants, keeping in mind their maturity dates and how their growth habits (tall or short, large or small, above or below ground).

Raised beds are considered an ideal growing space for this type of planting because you can add and contain the loose, fluffy, deep soil, ideal for growing vegetables. However, I have successfully planted this way for years with in-ground garden beds. The key to successful IG is consistently building your soil, which I talk about in the video below, if you're curious.

Overall, Intensive Gardening is a great method that with proper planning and maintenance can create a healthy ecosystem, maximize your space, productivity, and time, as well as the overall beauty of your garden.